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The Emerging Administration


My first response to hearing that Rahm Emmanuel is the President-elect’s first choice for White House Chief of Staff, was to wonder just how quickly all the other promises of change and a new politics would be similarly repudiated. Emmanuel is a very, very tough partisan, known for practicing fairly brutal politics in the Clinton White House. He’s clever. He was one of the big recruiters of Democratic candidates who actually favor the second amendment — many of whom won Congressional seats in 2006. He will dole out rewards to allies and punishment to adversaries ruthlessly. An ugly model, to be sure, in the post-partisan wonderland we await.

But it occurs that it isn’t Republicans that Barack Obama needs to threaten, reward or intimidate. His major obstacle to a successful presidency will be his fellow Democrats in Congress. (OK, and some of his own dumb ideas about taxes.) He may have been the most liberal of the lot in the Senate. But those were mere votes. Now he’s in charge. He can’t be flip, and the righteous act won’t help much either. After today’s first big security briefing, he may start to see a more complicated reality in the larger world than the one he ran on.  And he may start to understand just how easy it is to send the wrong signals and passively cause greater international damage than the nonsense about America’s popularity that has engaged him heretofore. He may respond to that new understanding by toughening up vis-a-vis our adversaries. And at home he will face many (useful) limits to his programs courtesy of the recession.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has no such limits or incentives. She is free to stir up mischief without fear of accountability. Indeed, the lesson of the campaign that won’t be lost on her is that George Bush (and therefore John McCain) took all the blame for the banking crisis and the failures of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae– regardless of the fact that the Democratic congress impeded all reforms suggested by Bush or McCain. Not even the quid pro quo/aka corruption arrangement where Democrats who argued most loudly against oversight got the most money from the agencies involved seemed to have any consequences. So Pelosi knows that she can do whatever she wants without much fear that she’ll take the rap. Barack’s in charge. Which is why having a thuggish enforcer like Emmanuel on your staff — one who is owed many favors by many Democrats he got elected to Congress — is actually smart.   

(Rahm Emmanuel trivia watch: FWIW, he will surely be the first White House chief of staff who started life — after Sarah Lawrence, as Cliff May notes — as a ballet dancer. And who thinks of ballerinas as thuggish enforcers?)

As for the rest of the names floated today for Cabinet positions, none of them are nearly as clever — nor are they impressive. John Kerry as Secretary of State? He is unlikeable, not so intelligent, certainly no strategic thinker, and fundamentally indecisive — as this country and the watching world learned four years ago. If Obama picks him, then we know that we are dealing with a new president with narrow comfort zones, and limited creativity.

Larry Summers at Treasury sounds good on the merits. He is very smart and a genuine centrist on core economic issues. But he has no people skills. After the debacle in which he lost his job as president of Harvard, a friend on the faculty — who supported him — suggested that he has a mild case of Aspergers. Metaphor or reality, our current global crisis requires working well with other nations. Still he would be worlds better than appointing N.J. Governor Jon Corzine, who has bought himself two big jobs, but has low popularity ratings in New Jersey and is pretty ham-handed in general. Employment at Goldman Sachs is not a sign of political genius.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the EPA? Total flake. What’s this obsession with having younger Kennedys decorating your administration?

Colin Powell at Education? To be sure, many former military men have done exceptionally well in classrooms, conveying discipline and the value of hard work to inner city, often fatherless youth. But that isn’t what the Secretary of Education does. Considering what a mediocre job he did for Bush at State, it’s unclear why he’d be a good fit at Defense, either. There are useful things for him to do — not neccesarily in the cabinet.

Actually, Timothy Noah, a Slate writer with whom I have never previously agreed about anything, has a smart list of the hiring mistakes Obama should avoid. He’s right about all but one of them — especially his admonition not to offer Joe Biden the Vice-Presidency.

Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, is apparently on the short list to keep that position. Considering how complicated the world is, and what it will take to get the new President up to speed on the two wars he’s now in charge of, not to mention that the military is unlikely to trust the man — keeping Gates on for a couple of years would be a sound idea and symbol.

Finally, the New York Post reports that former Republican, former Senator Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island is on a list for a senior job. Bad move. Cabinet members from the other party are tokens. They’re usually weak and ineffectual. Appointing a party-switching hack buys neither talent nor good will.

No hints yet about Attorney General — which will be the most telling of his picks, since that is the field  where he is most likely to have radical revisions in mind.

Tomorrow, I’d like to see a list of the real candidates for top jobs. Not more Clinton retreads — who didn’t do all that well back then.  I’m waiting for the younger, brilliant, new-thinking, deep-thinking, post-partisan ones who will make this Administration a model for the generations.